Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them, for I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God…(Exodus 20:5ab).
God is not just providing commands for Israel on Mount Sinai– He also gives reasons as to why the commands exist. But the reason behind the second command may seem rather baffling. The Israelites are not to make an image of any thing in all the creation to bow down and serve it because YHWH is a jealous God. A similar declaration is made in Exodus 34:14 in a similar context– the reason that Israel is to not make a covenant with the inhabitants of Canaan is because they are all to be destroyed, lest they intermarry and begin serving other gods.
This statement, then, is clearly not an aberration. But what does it mean? How should we understand the idea that God is a jealous God?
Many people place the most negative spin imaginable on the idea. They make God out to be a very insecure and domineering deity, unable to stand the idea that Israel would shower another with affection because it would significantly dampen His self-image. In this view, all of the negative aspects of jealousy are highlighted. Such a view is a direct descendant of the Gnostic view of the God of the Old Testament– they imagined that “Yaldabaoth,” the “Creator God” of the Old Testament, was a minor deity, unaware of the existence of greater deities beyond him, who acted like a tyrannical despot, from whom the Logos came to set men free. Little wonder, then, that many who seek to challenge and question the faith turn to a passage like this and demand answers as to how God can be righteous and just while being jealous.
But there is no real need for us to imagine God as jealous in such a negative way. After all, in the very next verse, YHWH declares how He will show lovingkindness to those who love Him (Exodus 20:6). God loves Israel– that is why He led them out with a mighty hand from the bondage of Egypt (cf. Exodus 20:2). And, as Paul will later declare, love does not seek its own and is not provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5). Thus, perhaps God’s jealousy has less to do with God Himself and more to do with His desires for His people Israel.
Illustrations can be instructive. One of the prevailing images used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between God and Israel is that of marriage (e.g. Hosea 1-3). Correspondingly, bowing down to other “gods” and serving them is described with the image of adultery (Jeremiah 3:1-3).
Therefore, an element of God’s jealousy for Israel does likely involve a desire on the part of the Husband to be the sole Beloved in the sight of the wife. But this jealousy is based more in a desire for the benefit of Israel than for the benefit of God.
Paul will later describe in Romans 1:18-32 the descent of man that begins with making gods out of the creation as opposed to serving the Creator. It is not a pretty picture, and it was graphically illustrated in the case of Israel in Ezekiel 16. Idolatry leads to sexual perversion, perversion among other human relationships, and the general degradation of society. Hosea 4:1-3 paints a dismal picture of Israel’s condition. And it all started because Israel did not respect the first and second commandments. It all went downhill from there.
In the New Testament, the prevailing image describing the relationship between God and Christians is that of Father and child (cf. Luke 15:11-32, Romans 8:14-17, etc.). There is also an natural jealousy in that relationship, and everyone who has ever been a parent can understand it. Good parents always want what is truly best for their child, and they earnestly desire that their children follow in that path. If that is the case with earthly parents, how much more so is that the case with our heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:5-11)? Is this desire not a form of jealousy? As it is written,
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:5 ESV)
To what end is this jealousy? Our betterment. God is jealous for us not because He is some insecure, megalomaniacal God, but because He wants what is truly best for us. Just as earthly parents beam with joy when their children follow in the good paths in which they directed them, so God rejoices when His children follow in the good path in which He has directed them (cf. 1 John 2:3-6). Likewise, just as earthly parents mourn when their children prove rebellious to their own hurt, God mourns when people rebel against Him to their own hurt and disadvantage, both in this life and in the next (Romans 1:18-32, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
The same temptations exist then as now to divinize that which is less than God and to descend from there. Evidence of this is pervasive in our society, and tragically, even in our own lives. This is why God is a jealous God– He is jealous for us and for our betterment, so that we can have that which is truly life, both in this life and in the life to come. We must humbly understand that God loves us and seeks our own good even when we do not understand or prove to be rebellious. We should be thankful that God is jealous, earnestly desiring us to lead us in the good path that leads to life. Let us follow that path, serve God, and experience true life!
Ethan R. Longhenry